By Melissa A Vitale
It’s not exactly a “To be or not to be” Shakespearean conundrum, but eventually the founders of every startup must answer this question: “Big fee or not big fee?” In other words, should you hire an established, decorated, and pricey public relations agency or a comparatively cheaper independent or freelance publicist? So long as you do your research before investing in a PR campaign, which means choosing someone with a proven track record, either option should yield top-tier results. PR agencies have teams of publicists, each with a wealth of contacts and relationships with media outlets, but they also have higher overhead: posh offices, MacBook computers, Pellegrino instead of Poland Spring water, etc. Independent publicists have a leaner business model, but they typically have fewer contacts and influential relationships.
Deciding whether an agency or a freelancer is the best fit for your brand depends on a variety of factors:
Scope of work
Depending on your marketing and communications needs, press coverage alone may not be the only goal when hiring a publicity professional. Brands often want a one-stop shop for content curation, branding deck, content writing, video production, affiliate marketing, and social media management. Not every PR agency offers all those services, but an agency likely can activate all these channels within the first month.
Independent publicists have only so much time in a day to satisfy myriad clients. Often times, rather than spreading themselves too thin, freelancers focus on one service. For public relations, that is press outreach and securing coverage.
Is there a brand story to be told?
When I worked at agencies, I rarely saw what we in the industry call a “one-off,” a single email to a journalist. Most PR agencies have massive lists of industry contacts built over years. Although often outdated, these media lists usually range from 300 to 2,000 contacts. Getting your message into the in-box of 2,000 contacts sounds amazing, but let’s look at what is really happening:
An account coordinator writes a lengthy pitch about the brand and hits send on a Mail Merge program, but there is no vetting to see whether the recipients of the pitch are a fit for the brand or whether there is a unique coverage point. As a result, the relationship between these publicists and journalists is often superficial and reliant on a single pitch. In a PR firm with 10 employees or more, each account coordinator could be sending up to 2,000 emails a day. Now multiply that by the number of PR agencies in the world. If you were an editor, would you open ever single blast pitch you received? Absolutely not, and that’s why media lists exceed 1,500 people, to ensure that at least one person opens the pitch. We call this method “Spray Then Pray.” Some agencies rely on press releases and media alerts without even diving into a unique storyline or engaging angle that press can sink their teeth into, making their outreach no more valuable than a mail-chimp email campaign, which is not the reason for public relations.
Freelance publicists, even those with extensive media lists, hand-pick the best journalists for the story. Rather than spraying then praying, a single publicist is more likely to curate storylines with journalists within her network or work closely with existing media relationships. If your brand is more product-focused, a PR agency likely will have the contacts needed to place the product. If your brand has a unique story, avoid a PR campaign that relies on mass pitches and press-release distribution, as your story will get lost in the crowd.
If you have a specific goal in mind or a dream list, be sure that whatever option you pick is capable of meeting your goals.
As I mentioned earlier, most PR agencies have hundreds, maybe thousands, of media contacts they have been pitching for years. About half of them are bloggers or lower-tier or regional publications. Many PR firms work with multiple bloggers to show an ROI based on ad value (the cost of an advertisement equivalent) or inflate the value of a blog based on an often arbitrary industry standard. If a client is paying $7K a month, the PR firm wants to show $14K in ad value. Reaching that total could mean placements on a blog and in two regional magazines. If you’re a regional company, that is great coverage. If you’re a startup servicing financial professionals in NYC, a write-up in a Silicon Valley magazine isn’t going to be worth what you’re paying.
Independent publicists run leaner operations and often cut out the fluff of blogs and regional magazines. While larger brands appreciate blog reviews and regional features, most startups want to see their name in the Forbeses, Fortunes, and Tech Crunches of the business world, not Joe’s tech blog with 5,000 unique visitors per month. Many startups don’t see the value in the smaller outlets, and freelancers don’t typically have time to cultivate them either.
Just because you’re not pitching your own brand doesn’t mean you don’t need to reserve time for a PR commitment. If you have little time to do interviews or take intro calls from journalists, a public relations firm likely will have a senior partner who can answer questions or speak on your behalf or train another employee to represent the brand until the actual interview.
If you have a little more time to dedicate to a PR campaign, a freelancer will make the introductions and set up the calls, allowing you to tell your brand’s story from your perspective.
Disruptive startups are going to want a media campaign personalized for their brand. Many PR firms work with a regimented PR strategy that is applied across all clients based on their capabilities as an agency, not your goals as a brand. To keep everyone in the agency on the same track across different accounts, most agencies employ standard practices. Everything from new business proposals to pitches are templated and ready for modification, based on the brand they are pitching that day.
PR freelancers often curate a campaign from the ground up, looking first at the goals and newsworthiness of a brand. Because freelancers aren’t typically onboarding 15 brands a month, or even a year, they look at every campaign carefully. Not being beholden to a team of people and one stringent strategy, a freelancer can customize a campaign to better fit a company’s goals throughout the PR process.
If you have a rapid deadline, then, by all means, hire a PR agency, which has more people and, thusly, more contacts at media houses to quickly launch a timely story.
No matter what any freelancer says, independent publicists do not carry the same weight as a firm of 10 professionals and often only know a few people at each publication. This makes them much less likely to be able to accelerate the process.
If your story must be published next week, speak to an agency. If you can wait two weeks or more to allow a strategy to unfold and be implemented, then consider a freelancer.
Public relations agencies aren’t cheap; retainers typically start at $8K per month for a minimum of twelve (12) months’ work. Smaller agencies will start at $5k for startups and budget clients. That $5K doesn’t guarantee star treatment either. PR principals constantly check on their teams to make sure members are not “overservicing” a client. This often means that a startup is cast aside by mid-month in favor of older clients. I've even seen an agency who would stop pitching a client at the end of the month because they had spent too much time on the client, completely halting their outbound media campaign because of their own account mismanagement.
Independent publicists usually charge in the range of $3K per month and limit the size of their business, thereby guaranteeing them the time necessary to commit themselves to their clients’ needs, campaign, and goals.
If you have a big budget for public relations, a PR firm has multiple publicists, each with a wealth contacts, who will ensure that your brand receives coverage.
If you’re more restricted financially, a freelance publicist will work within your budget and still deliver terrific service.
Some publicists, including Melissa A, Vitale, offer hybrid services. Some clients require one publicist, while others require a team of publicists, content and copywriters. To learn more about our services, visit https://www.melissaavitale.com/services.html
By Melissa A. Vitale
*While this post is a guide to whether a public relations campaign is right for you, only a consultation with a PR professional can definitively determine whether your start-up or established brand is ready for a PR campaign.
To learn more about rates and to schedule a consultation, visit: https://www.melissaavitale.com/consulting.html
Every company wants to spread the word and increase name recognition throughout their brand journey. After inevitable minor setbacks, it can seem like a miracle when a new brand takes off. Immediately, entrepreneurs look for the best way to maximize exposure, which typically means hiring a public relations professional to help navigate the media industry, a multifaceted, multiplatform world nowadays.
Unless your young company has been acquired by a corporate conglomerate or your mentor is Elon Musk, publicizing new brands, embedding your product’s name in the public consciousness through mass exposure, requires time, patience and a good storyline.
The traditional benefit of public relations is placing mentions, articles, quotes, and commentary in digital, print, and broadcast media outlets.
Working with a PR professional gives the client a knight in the battle to procure media coverage — the channels to maneuver, the hoops to jump through, the ladders to climb. A good PR professional knows how to overcome all those impediments. Aside from choosing the best storylines and topics for a brand to reach its target audience, the best public relations operation can transform a quick email into interviews with reporters from influential outlets like Forbes, Fast Company, Inc.com, and Entrepreneur.
Almost every company believes it is doing something different, but success requires more than having a new product to sell and a unique story to tell. So how does a start-up know when it is ready for a public relations campaign? Check out this checklist from Melissa A. Vitale Public Relations.
Is your brand newsworthy?
“Start-up has customers” doesn’t make an exciting headline. Standing out in the herd of new companies competing for customers and the attentions of journalists requires having something exciting to share: the launch of a product out of beta, the closing of a funding round, or the collaboration with an industry heavyweight. Sometimes the mundane makes news: a series of successful backtest reports or case studies that demonstrate competitive advantage. If your brand is doing something thrilling in its industry, the media are more likely to step up to the plate …. with a publicist’s pitch.
Is there are a compelling story to tell?
Even if a brand isn’t launching a new product or closing a funding round, a start-up with a compelling story or mission can attract media attention. Some seemingly routine topics are actually newsworthy:
A skilled publicist will isolate and amplify key areas of a brand’s story that will appeal most to the media.
Are you doing something exciting in the industry?
Just being an entrepreneur isn’t enough to garner news coverage anymore. Forbes recognizes more than 900 entrepreneurs every year on its “30 Under 30” lists. My cat, Jack, who has his own line, Glam Hats for Cats, is an entrepreneur. Start-up founders are often guilty of wearing blinders. In their quest not to let the competition rattle them, they often overlook some of the more noteworthy achievements of another brand or similar concept. Unfortunately, only so many stories can be published in a day or a month, so securing feature press becomes extra difficult if a start-up twice the size of yours launches or offers what you are offering. But so long as your brand is disruptive in its industry, your company will stick out.
Does your startup have solidified branding and a concrete direction?
If your brand is all over the place, offering a variety of services or products with no specific niche or staple item, it may be premature to start a PR campaign. Journalists can size up a story possibility in
90 seconds or less, so you had better be able to hook them fast with vital info, including who you are, what you do, and your competitive advantage. Along with solidified direction and messaging, your branding should be ready for mass audiences before engaging a PR professional. Your publicist probably isn’t tech-savvy beyond Photoshop (if that!), so it is essential to already have a website and whatever branded materials that are up to industry standards.
Are you committed to getting your messaging out there?
Hiring a publicist doesn’t mean you don’t have to work to promote your product and name. Especially in the early stages of promoting a new brand, a publicist will often have time-sensitive questions for the client. Since most start-ups don’t have a Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) or VP of Communications to answer questions or do interviews, CEOs and founders will need to dedicate time and energy not just to answering questions, but also preparing for interviews, traveling to broadcast studios , or meeting for cocktails with journalists, when requested.
If you don't have the time to answer your publicist or speak with journalists, and there is no one else at the company with similar authority, starting a PR engagement may be a waste of resources.
Can you afford to wait for quality results?
In the same arena, often times, public relations campaigns can take up to a month from sending the first month’s retainer to seeing a feature article. At a publishing house, there can be writers, freelancers, editors, managing editors, editorial directors and site directors that have to edit and go through content before it gets published. This can make the process from interview to publication take up to two months.
If you don’t have time to wait for articles to curate, there may be better communications solutions than a traditional press strategy.
Do you want PR for the right reasons?
In my experience, clients seek public relations for everything from getting a verified blue check on Twitter or Instagram to increasing sales to attracting investors and, most commonly, raising brand awareness. Let me be clear: public relations can help a client achieve one of those goals — brand awareness, which, could trigger more sales and investor interest, but PR is never evaluated by sales. Public relations is measured in Ad Value – how much organic press did a brand receive thanks to the publicist? Asking a publicist to deliver sales, investors, or improved social media presence could divert focus from the campaign and produce dissatisfaction with the publicist.
Do you have the budget for public relations?
While every brand can use a little PR, not every start-up is financially ready. A successful PR campaign can cost a couple of thousand a month, for at least three months. If you’re hoping to attract enough new business from the first month of the campaign to pay for the second, ask yourself: When was the last time you read an article and instantly bought the featured product?
Before hiring a publicist, make sure you have the budget necessary to pay the PR professional and sustain the campaign and your business until sales soar. An article on a top-tier outlet like Forbes can define a brand, but it doesn’t happen overnight nor does it yield six-figure sales. The last thing you want to do is stiff a person who made a profession of being a source for journalists who cover the ins and outs of companies and startups.
If you can answer yes to five or more of these questions, then you are ready for public relations; so get in touch with us today.
To learn more about rates and to schedule an introductory consultation with Melissa A. Vitale Public Relations, visit: https://www.melissaavitale.com/consulting.html
Relying on a proprietary strategy, storytelling, and strong relationships across the media industry, Melissa A. Vitale Public Relations has delivered full-feature results for clients.
(For examples of work: https://www.melissaavitale.com/in-the-news.html and case studies: https://www.melissaavitale.com/case-studies.html)
Melissa A Vitale Public Relations
A public relations agency specializing in brands and startups in artificial intelligence, sexual wellness and legal cannabis.